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Keyboard opens brave new world

By Anne Beston

Kiwi computer wizardry has opened up a world of independence for two disabled schoolboys and earned them an invitation to visit one of the world's most famous disabled scientists.

Blake and Ryan Leitch have been invited to visit cosmologist and mathematician Professor Stephen Hawking in Britain this year after a staff member at Westlake Boys High School emailed the professor about an invention that was transforming the boys' lives.

Blake, 13, and Ryan, 15, suffer from congenital spinal muscular atrophy, severely limiting their ability to complete course work on an orthodox computer keyboard which the two top students would otherwise have no trouble with.

Now a New Zealand invention allows them to use a laser headset or hand unit to select keys on a specially designed keyboard, cutting out the physical demands of entering keystrokes and allowing them to use a form of shorthand.

Mother Judy Davidson said the "LOMAK" technology had transformed both boys' lives.

"It's just huge, it's a whole new world for them and for the family."

Inventor Mike Watling, a technician at Watercare Services, is an electrician by trade who has spent 23 years getting the LOMAK keyboard ready to market.

Ryan and Blake helped to trial the technology over the past three years.

"A lot of their input is in the latest model," Mr Watling said.

"I'm really pleased with the end result, which is something inventors don't always say."

Realize Technology took over development of the keyboard in 2002 and it will be officially launched today.

Mr Watling said it could be used by stroke victims, people with arthritis or just about anyone whose ability to physically cope with an ordinary keyboard was impaired. "I think there's a tremendous future for it."

Ryan and Blake say the invitation from Professor Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time and a leading theorist on the origin and future of the universe who is severely disabled from motor neurone disease, was "cool".

"It came out of the blue," said Ryan, although he admitted he hadn't read any of the famous professor's works.

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